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The Culture of Peace 


Materialism and Consumerism 



N. Radhakrishnan

As humanity cruises towards the twenty-first century with confused visions of a world without war and boundaries, and statesmen, scientists, social activists, religious leaders and others reiterate from different world forums their commitment to the ushering in of a just and peaceful world order, the one thought that troubles the minds of sensitive souls who have no stake in any of these high-profile declamations is: What is happening to the average man, the man who is caught in the web of a soulless consumerist and materialistic culture with all the temptations it offers him? The general scenario is one of utter helplessness and nobody seems to have any control over his future. Added to this is the acquisitive tendency of those who are tempted to go for all kinds of things the market offers. A kind of insatiable greed seems to have taken control of all of us and no effort is being made anywhere to limit one’s wants. And this has become a global phenomenon and no country seems to be free from it. Thus the average man finds himself to be truly at a crossroads of utter despair and helplessness. He is swept away by the mighty waves of an all-pervading materialism and consumerism. Economic well-being appears to be the sole purpose of life and the manner in which value systems are being trampled upon raises the big question: Where are we headed?

Mahatma Gandhi wrote:

I suggest we are thieves in a way. If I take anything I do not need for my own immediate use and keep it I thieve it from somebody else. . . . It is the fundamental law of Nature, without exception, that Nature produces enough for our want from day to day and if only everybody realizes this and takes nothing more, there would be no pauperism in this world, there would be no man dying of starvation in this world.

But who listens?

From the world of philosophy, ethics, morality, religion, arts and literature which, in the not too distant past, acted like principal sources and supports to the evolution of the primitive man of yesterday to the computer genius of today, man finds himself caught in the dust and din of production, profit, distribution, interest rate, GNP and forex. While materialism in its original sense cannot be described as something evil by itself, it is the vulgar side of it which is believed to have pushed humanity to the cut-throat world of consumerism with utter disregard for human and ecological concerns. And we justify all this in the name of ‘enlightened self-interest’.

One is reminded of the famous story of the rich man and the poor man who happened to pray at the same time in church. The rich man was pleading: ‘O God, I need a million dollars to get out of my present financial difficulties.’ The poor man’s demand wad simple: ‘O God, please grant me a loaf of bread or I will die of starvation today.’ The rich man heard this, opened his wallet, took out a hundred dollars, and thrusting them into the poor man’s hand, said: ‘Now take this money and buy whatever you want. For heaven’s sake please go away from here for I need God’s individual attention. And let me pray.’

It appears that many conveniently forget the simple truth that the threats confronting humanity at this juncture arise mostly out of present-day man’s psychological inability to comprehend the gravity of the highly explosive situation towards which humanity is moving. What impels the modern man in his so-called onward march? An insatiable greed for wealth, power and influence seem to have taken him over. And in this, economic clout, in short the purchasing power of an individual or a nation, is all that matters. Man’s worth is now measured on the basis of his purchasing power and all spheres of human endeavour are being shaped by economic variables. It appears that economics has emerged as the single determining factor of human achievement and survival, and by ‘growth’ what is meant today is economic growth and man has all of a sudden been reduced to the level of a commodity whose worth is determined by factors other than what distinguishes man from beast.

Does ‘progress’ clash with real progress? . . . I take it, we mean material advancement without limit and by real progress we mean moral progress which again is the same thing as progress of the permanent element in us. 

. . . If therefore material progress does not clash with moral progress, it must necessarily advance the latter. . . .

Gandhi pointed this out six decades ago. The law of growth presupposes that any growth will be subject to the innumerable constant factors which govern human life. Modern planners seem to have forgotten the simple truth that while some thing ought to be growing, others ought to be diminishing. Unlimited material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility, as Schumacher points out.

Man always lived in harmony with Nature, and what sustained him in all the crises he faced in his profound, courageous and determined march towards unravelling mysteries of various kinds is his respect for all forms of life around him. What has guided him in this long, very often distressing and disappointing but at the same time lively search for identity, is the realization of how all things in nature are dependent on one another. This is the core of ancient wisdom. The votaries of modernism, while they scoff at the ancient way of living, describing it as barbaric or jungle life, seem to have forgotten that it is this very system that gave them all the tools that they are using now to decry the worth of the foundation on which they stand. The problem with modern man is that he has proprietary rights over whatever he has conquered and this attitude appears to be guiding him in most of his endeavours.

The self-centred philosophy, and the systems he has developed on the basis of this outlook — the hallmark of which is the belief that nature had unlimited resources for all time to come — govern modern man’s style of functioning. All of us who were lulled into the newly acquired instruments of ‘liberation’ which science and technology put in our hands have been rudely awakened by the alarm bells ringing all around now. From the Himalayan heights of materialistic comforts and belief we are being led to the abyss of all-round environmental pollution, ecological devastation, ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect, and so on, creating waves of shock in all thinking men. When Gandhi at the turn of the present century drew humanity’s attention to this eventual scenario many scoffed at him and he was labelled orthodox and anti-progressive.

Eminent Western thinkers and economists like Schumacher, Handerson and Capra were among the earliest to appreciate Gandhi’s views on a new economic system which they strongly believed would ensure the emergence of a new world order, and this was reflected in their advocacy of the now famous Intermediate Technology, Soft Technology, and Technology with a Human Face. Though one can see a slight divergence in their approach, there is an amazing confluence in their basic ideas. Gandhi with his advocacy of the development of self-sufficient village communities, trusteeship, disapproval of desires beyond the minimum, manual labour, the community-based Nai Talim (Basic Education) was aiming at developing a social order where nobody could be an exploiter or exploited and which would ensure the equitable distribution of wealth and justice.

To Gandhi economics and ethics were not unrelated areas of human endeavour: ‘I must confess that I do not draw any distinction between economics and ethics. Economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation are immoral and therefore sinful. Thus the economics that permit one country to prey upon another are immoral.’ There are several issues involved in this assertion and to many of the votaries of unlimited growth words like morality or ethics do not mean anything. And even if they matter it might be just as inconvenient irritants. The Gandhi who strove for the spiritualization of politics so that politics would free itself from the stranglehold of power brokers, was a strange and odd man out, or at least it appeared so when he insisted on the adoption of pure means to achieve lasting and fair ends. Many considered and still consider this proposition of Gandhi’s outlandish. And to their faithful followers morality and economics were different domains and only a mad man would think that they are related areas. ‘The economics that disregard moral and sentimental considerations are like the wax works, that being life, still lack the life of the living flesh’, Gandhi reminded us.

At the base of Gandhi’s vision of life lies contentment and simplicity. Under that outlook he was propagating that multiplicity of material wants should not be the aim of life: the aim should be rather their restriction consistent with comfort.

It appears many have not read the remarkable essay, ‘Gandhian Economy and the Way to Realise It’, by J.C. Kumarappa. He summarized the salient difference between the ‘artificial adjustment of demand to supply and the "natural economy" geared to the satisfaction of the primary needs of the largest number’. Kumarappa succinctly pointed out:

Our life is something higher than material possessions and our life is also to be looked at from the possibilities of development of personality. The personality of an individual does not require for its development the satisfaction of a multiplicity of wants. In fact the simple[r the] life the more conducive it is [to] exercising the higher faculties.

To Gandhi ‘life is more than money’. He said, ‘It is cheaper to kill our aged parents who can do no work and who are a drag on our slender resources. It is also cheaper to kill our children whom we have to maintain, no matter what their maintenance costs us’.

What J.D. Sethi pointed out in this connection deserves attention:

What Gandhi did was to lay down principles and methods of practice by which the individual and social utility functions were jointly determined. A non-violent economic society and the replacement of demand-oriented production by need-oriented production are two principles out of the many he put forward. The introduction of such principles makes an entirely new approach to the subject necessary and the methodology a social scientist must follow consequently becomes entirely different from that of modern social sciences.

To Gandhi true economics is the economics of justice. People will be happy insofar as they learn to do justice and be righteous. All else is not only vain but leads to destruction. To teach people to get rich by hook or by crook is to do them immense harm. Gandhi said that ‘the art of accumulating much money for ourselves but also of contributing that our neighbours still have less. In accurate terms it is the art of establishing the maximum inequality in our favour’.

The emphasis Gandhi laid on developing alternative sources of energy show how far-sighted he was in his analysis of our duty to preserve the ecological balance. This also shows how Gandhi believed in the fundamental and hierarchical levels of natural phenomena. He was able to cut through academic jargon, expose the basic fallacies of current economic thinking through specific experiments which were there for everybody to see, draw lessons from them and offer alternatives based on sound ecological principles. Schumacher said with prophetic accuracy: ‘Instead of listening to Gandhi, are we not more inclined to listen to one of the most influential economists of our century, the great Lord Keynes? Is there enough to go round? Immediately we encounter a serious difficulty: What is enough? Who can tell us? Certainly not the economists who pursue economic growth as the highest of all values and therefore have no concept of which have too little, but where is the rich society that says, "Half, we have enough?" There is none.’ Gandhi had worked for such an order with his trusteeship idea.

It can be seen that Gandhi’s thoughts were largely shaped by India’s spiritual tradition and his own practical experience. He firmly believed that economics, like all other fields of human activity, could not be divorced from ethics and religion. Moksha (salvation) the summum bonum, the ultimate goal of the human endeavour, could be attained only through the fair practice of dharma (religion), artha (economy) and kama (desire).

The epoch-making changes humanity has been witnessing in almost all spheres in recent times make one wonder as to where to go from here. The various political developments taking place globally also have raised new doubts. An agonizing reappraisal and a desperate search for alternative strategies are seen everywhere. The international community in this search for a viable, alternative political and economic system is increasingly turning to Gandhi. There is greater awareness of the Gandhian model of development and political pundits, economic experts and even religious leaders seem to be examining Gandhi’s views with considerable interest. There are more research foundations, groups and centres devoted to the study and examination of Gandhian thought in countries abroad than in India. Nelson Mandela’s words, that humanity cannot afford to ignore the relevance of the path shown by Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps indicate the growing interest in Gandhi, particularly among those who fight for justice.

There has been a change in our outlook. This outlook emphasizes growth and development at any cost. And in this mad rush for material progress man has developed the attitude that he is the master of this universe and Nature and its resources are there for him to be exploited for his insatiable greed. This reminds us of the story of Leo Tolstoy where the greedy man who wants land and when given the option to go round and mark out the area he wants, finds himself driven by an endless desire to acquire as much area before the sun sets and ultimately finds himself lost in his incapacity to control his greed.

The general scenario is frightening. Many do not have even an iota of concern for the future. One cannot forget the caustic remark of that sprightly spirit Puck, in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be’.

Science and technology have been able to provide man with wonderful things which were unimaginable a few decades ago, and the galloping horses of science and technology are largely responsible for altering the rhythm of human life in modern times. The tragedy is that instead of becoming more human and considerate man still acts under deadly passion, and reason and moral principles have become unwelcome aspects fit only for the caveman.

Greed and acquisitive tendencies which cannot be described as anything new to man have also grown along with all our development, but what accelerates their pace now is the unhealthy influence of the monster of consumerism. The widening tentacles of this growing Hydra seem to have cast a spell on almost all those who can afford or cannot. The techniques and strategy the promoters of this ‘culture’ adopt are temptation and allurement of all kinds, which very few can resist. The latest strategy adopted by them indicates the mindset of these people who exhort us, ‘When the going is tough, the tough get going.’ Realizing that unless children are attracted to their fold they will not by able to sustain their markets, an all-out attempt is discernible to conquer the imagination of children first and gradually condition their minds and tastes by flooding the markets with all sorts of consumer goods. This is a dangerous trend. Besides enslaving children it acts on life as a kind of opium.

Those who cannot afford to purchase all that the market offers and those whose purchasing power is negligible resort to dubious means to acquire at least some of the most attractive things. This brings in inevitably the unhealthy tendency to acquire money though any means, very often through corrupt practices. The desire to acquire money is not confined to any particular class. The temptation of the market and the lurking desire of people to acquire the latest from the bazaar thus lead to a very unhealthy situation. The developing social system and the resultant pressure on time and convenience in average middle-class families will justify the purchase of anything the market offers and every item in some way or other reduces drudgery, enhances efficiency, is a time saver, money saver and what not. Several juvenile crimes in many parts of the world have their inspiration mostly from the desire to acquire enough money to procure consumer goods. Similarly girls, particularly from low income or middle income groups, fall into the evil practice of prostitution to earn some quick bucks to maintain their social status within their peer groups.

The kind of aggressive, unprincipled rat-race of advertisement techniques the manufacturers adopt not only corrupt minds but also, as several studies have pointed out, a large number of murders, thefts and bank robberies owe their inspiration to the kinds of things that are to be seen in the print and electronic media. TV has become a very important source of generating violent and unhealthy tendencies among people.

It has been found in many developing countries that whenever there is street fighting or mob fury there is looting, and the items the looters take away are mostly consumer items from shops.

Several sensitive souls and visionaries who have been worried about these disturbing trends have been warning humanity of the impending dangers arising out of the obsession with materialistic advancement. Income generation, market, profit, turnover, import — these are some of the important concerns that regulate our lives now. To man now, Nature is just a commodity which can be marketed. Trees are grown mostly for the value of their timber and the value of rivers is based on the megawatts of electricity they can generate or the hectares of land they can irrigate.

We notice that the mind is a restless bird, the more it gets the more it wants, and still remains unsatisfied. The more we indulge our passions the more unbridled they become. Our ancestors, therefore, set a limit to our indulgence. They saw that happiness was largely a mental condition. A man is not necessarily happy because he is rich, or unhappy because he is poor.

Gandhi had written this in his little classic Hind Swaraj, which was published when the twentieth century was just being ushered in. Now, these thoughts of Gandhi assume great significance as we are getting ready to welcome the next century.


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